Fifteen Books for Becoming a Better Criminal Defense Trial Lawyer

At Illinois and Missouri lawyer Evan Schaeffer’s Trial Practice Tips Weblog, Evan has a link to an Amazon list of 16 Books to Read if You Want to Become a Better Trial Lawyer by Dallas Government lawyer Shane Read. Shane’s list includes Gerry Spence’s How to Argue and Win Every Time, Posner’s How Judges Think, and Read’s own Winning at Trial, as well as 14 other books from which people might try to learn skills and the The New Yorker Book of Lawyer Cartoons.

Trial lawyering (by which I mean criminal defense trial lawyering; I know very little about civil litigation, which apparently involves something called a “deposition”) is a creative endeavor. Skills are important, of course—before we can improvise, we must have technique to burn—but trying to learn how to try cases from a book is like trying to learn how to play jazz from a book. The way to learn trial skills is to watch, listen, and most importantly do.

So I am not one who thinks that reading about trial skills—even reading transcripts of the best trial lawyers at work—is an effective way of getting to be a better criminal-defense lawyer. Regular readers should not be surprised to learn that my becoming a better criminal defense trial lawyer reading list begins not with skills but with philosophy.

Trial is improvisational storytelling. Here are three books on improvisational theatre that will open your mind to ways to be a better trial lawyer:

Here’s a book on theatre, specifically:

Here’s a book on the broad strokes of storytelling (how to put together a compelling story):

I recommend three other books on skills, but they aren’t exactly law books:

Not fitting into any of those categories, but helping criminal-defense lawyers better understand how they deal with the high-stakes short-fuse world of trial:

Finally, I will throw in one legal skills book, for those who think that lawyers should read lawyer books:

Enjoy.

6 Comments

  1. 3 other good books are those written by Jim Perdue, Sr. They are focus on storytelling and very specific techniques that can be used throughout trial to tell your story, from voir dire to closing arguments: I Remember Atticus, Who Will Speak for the Victim, and Winning With Stories. Good list Mark. I’ll have to start on some of those you mentioned.

  2. My reading list gets longer and longer. I just picked up Joseph Campbell’s the Hero of a Thousand Faces, which was the inspiration for the Writer’s Journey. Next on my list, will probably write about it when I’m done.

  3. I’m with you on the I Ching, but don’t underestimate Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. That book is virtually a bible for me when I’m designing a political campaign. I’ve probably read it 25 times because whenever I must design a campaign with money and resources behind it, I re-read the thing while taking project-specific notes to make sure I’m covering all my bases. The most recent effort where I did that was the Innocence Project of Texas’ successful campaign to pass an expanded compensation statute this session for DNA exonerees.

    Incidentally, I happen to own both but personally prefer Thomas Cleary’s translation to Mitchell’s. (Perhaps, though, just a matter of taste.) You might check it out if you haven’t resd that version.

  4. Thanks for the list. I went out and bought to of them today. I must confess that I fell into the trap early on of getting books that try to teach the craft but lately have been gravitating towards books as you suggest. Too books that I have gotten recently is How to Argue Like Jesus by Joe Carter and John Coleman and Thank you for arguing by Jay Heinrich. I must confess however that I did enjoy the Spence book How to Argue and Win Your case as they both give insight on trying to be less the lawyer in front of the jury but the everyman that is trusted to follow.

  5. I would add “Story” by Robert McKee because all of the great things he has to say on crafting a screen play can apply to crafting an opening statement and “Zen Mind Beginners Mind” for knowing yourself as the person who is trying the case to the extent there is a self to know.

  6. Agreed, reading can help to expand your knowledge of human nature (so can life experience) and an understanding of human nature is essential to all skills a trial lawyer has to employ (picking juries, cross examining and story telling) but well said –you cant teach yourself to try cases by reading (Ive read alot of how to books but never one for how to try cases except Jerry Spence’s book was the closest one), you just have to do it and do it alot. DeMarco, NY trial lawyer

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